MUNICH, GERMANY - Though comprehensive automated car control is at least a decade away, BMW engineers are making significant progress in developing safety technology that can take control of a vehicle in the event of a driver's sudden incapacitation, Popular Mechanics reported this month. 

BMW recently invited the magazine to take part in a rather dramatic demonstration of a prototype safety system under development at the automaker's headquarters in Munich. A Popular Mechanics writer and BMW host were driving on a simulated highway at about 60 mph with two other vehicles nearby. Then the BMW host asked the reporter at the wheel to fake a heart attack. His hands fell from the steering wheel and his foot left the pedal. The BMW 5-Series already knew its location through GPS and assessed its environment using cameras and sensors. Without any input from the driver, the car moved around traffic and stopped on the highway's shoulder. The vehicle accomplished this about 30 seconds (or about half a mile) after the simulated heart attack, using precise steering, throttle and braking inputs. 

Driver incapacitation, arising from medical emergencies, remains a common cause of major crashes. Headlines in the past month have provided a reminder of that fact, underscoring the potential impact of such future safety technology. 

Semi-truck driver William Bradfield of Huntington Beach, Calif., last week suffered a heart attack behind the wheel, sparking a pileup on the 405 Freeway in West Los Angeles that involved as many as a dozen vehicles. He was taken to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center where he was pronounced dead. Injuries to others ranged from minor to moderate, police told the Los Angeles Times

Earlier in October, bus driver Joseph Clabaugh of Hanover, Pa., suffered a fatal heart attack while driving on Interstate 270 in Maryland. The Wolf's Bus Line mini-coach bus with 11 passengers plummeted off an elevated ramp on Interstate 270 in Bethesda, rolled down an embankment and came to a stop with only a Jersey barrier preventing the bus from falling into traffic below, the Associated Press reported. All 11 passengers suffered injuries.